In 1987, Time Out magazine sent me to interview Marcello Mastroianni, to tie in with the UK release of Ettore Scola’s Maccheroni (known in English-speaking territories as Macaroni) in which he co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Daria Nicolodi. He was perfectly delightful, of course. As usual, I have lightly retro-edited the piece to make it run more smoothly (and to remove some of my more annoying or pretentious writerly idiosyncracies) but the quotes remain unchanged.
Of the handful of Italian actors who are internationally renowned, Marcello Mastroianni stands out from, say, Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Giancarlo Giannini as the only one who could conceivably be considered a household name. This fame is based squarely on the highbrow phwoar factor: his reputation is that of the archetypal Latin Lover. One feels he is swooned over by women too chic or intelligent or conversant with European art movies to fall for Manilow’s nose or the late Liberace’s questionable candelabra.
But, as Alexander Walker observed in Sex in the Movies, Mastroianni presents us with something of a paradox. His screen roles have always been those of weak men, men who are beset with sexual problems or who must resort to mildly kinky practices, like frolicking in a leopard skin, to revive their jaded appetites. Seldom can a screen sex symbol have had such trouble getting it up, keeping it up, or getting it together to put it in the appropriate place.
“I was always not really somebody like Clark Gable or John Wayne,” protests Mastroianni. “I was always a little confused in front of a woman. I always said, ‘But why you call me a Latin Lover?’ This is something that I don’t know why. Because, looking at my films, all my career I never made a role of a man that catch a woman, a strong man. Always a man fragile in some way.’
At 63, Mastroianni may no longer be the archetypal Latin Lover, but he is certainly the epitome of mature Italian manhood, attractively rumpled. Job opportunities for the screen sex symbol tend to dwindle with the first ravages of age, but truly great actors are never short of parts, and Mastroianni has always worked with la crema della crema of directors. His CV sounds like a roll-call of postwar Italian cinena: Antonioni (MM not getting it on with Jeanne Moreau in La Notte); Monicelli; Visconti (White Nights, and not getting it on with anyone in Lo Straniero); de Sica; Ferreri (the trying-and-failing-to-bonk-in-a-Bugatti scene being the most memorable food-free bit of La Grande Bouffe); the Taviani brothers; Scola; Wertmuller…
There are some Gold-Top foreigners in there as well: Malle, Demy, Boorman and Polanski. But the film maker with whom Mastroianni will always be associated is Fellini; as the director’s alter ego in 8½ and as the journalist adrift in a sea of decadence in La Dolce Vita. “He believe to be a hero,” says Mastroianni of this role. “He believe to seduce women, but it’s not true. Is only a very naive, provincial young man.”
“It’s always better to work with friends,” he says. “Everything is more comfortable. I am very close with Fellini, or Ettore Scola. Not only when we work together – also out of the set.” He played the ageing hoofer in FF’s Ginger and Fred and pops up in a cameo role, alongside La Dolce Vita co-star Anita Ekberg, in the maestro’s latest, provisionally titled The Interview. In Scola’s Macaroni, he is the huge-hearted Neapolitan foil for Jack Lemmon’s tiny-minded American businessman.
It is somehow fitting that he should at last be playing opposite Lemmon, whose persona in films such as The Apartment is probably the nearest American equivalent to that of Mastroianni, harassed by Sophia Loren et al, in Italian sex comedies such as Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage, Italian Style. The Italian male is ruthlessly lampooned, caught in sexual or marital traps until, like the effete Sicilian aristocrat of Divorce, Italian Style, he must resort to murder in order to get what he wants – which turns out to be yet another sexual or marital trap.
It is strange that Italy, a country notorious for its macho codes of behaviour, should spawn such merciless send-ups of the male psyche while American sex comedies such as The Seven Year Itch or Kiss Me, Stupid, should get their laughs largely at the expense of the blonde, buxotic female characters.
Mastroianni is apologetic about his charmingly fractured English. I, thinking wistfully of many a missed Buongiorno Italia! lesson, apologise in my turn. “But the Italian language is not important,” he replies. “It’s not international language.” (Later, on live television, sandwiched between Wogan and his guests Sara Keays and Germaine Greer, he has to call on Greer’s Italian-to-English translating skills in order to hold his end up during an impassioned discussion of men and their mistresses – our anti-hero has had several, plus extra-marital offspring, but naturally his wife has stuck by him like a true daughter of the tortellini.)
His knowledge of English was nonexistent when he came to Notting Hill Gate to film Leo the Last (1970) for John Boorman, so he had to learn his lines phonetically: “I had a lady at night, to repeat, to repeat in English. Was very hard for me.” He spent the first few days on set in a state of extreme puzzlement as one word of his native language kept cropping up through the din, and waited in vain for a musical box to appear out of nowhere before finally realising that what was being said was not cariglione but “carry on”.
“I felt a little stupid,” he admits.
Perhaps that sex symbol reputation stems less from any amorous exploit than from an ability to admit his weaknesses and send them up. Perhaps women prefer a man who is fallible? “Aaah, perhaps. A kind of maternal feeling? I don’t know. I’m not Zero Zero Seven: I like that kind of man – strong, with humour, but macho. But Jack Lemmon and myself is another kind.”
But Mastroianni cannot relate even his wartime experiences – he eluded the Germans by forging a visa and spent the rest of the war holed up in a tailor’s attic in Venice – without being reminded of his own fallibility. He recalls an occasion 20 years ago when he took his daughter, then 15 years old, to a restaurant for dinner, got tanked up and talked non-stop about the war. Ten years later he came across her diary and read the relevant entry: “‘Yesterday night I went to a restaurant with papa. He spoke all the time about Germans. Che palle!‘” Mastroianni mimes the meaning of palle for me. “It’s a little vulgar. I don’t know what expression you have here…”*
“Perhaps she was right,” he says, paternal concern in his voice after all these years. ‘I didn’t ask her nothing about herself. I spoke all the time about me, and Germans…”
As a parting shot, I ask if he had ever considered directing. He replies without hesitation. “No! Is too hard. You have to convince everybody. First you have to convince yourself that you are very genius. Then your wife, and your mistress, the servants, your chauffeur. Then the producer, the wife, the mistress of the producer, the daughter, the friend. Then the audience. It’s too hard work. It’s not for me.”
*In fact Mastroianni translated che palle for me as “Waterballs”. I told him I wasn’t familiar with that expression and we both puzzled over it for a bit, but I had to go and write the interview up to meet my deadline, so I glossed over that.
Three days later, in the middle of a pizza restaurant, I burst out laughing, having suddenly realised that what he’d actually said was not “Waterballs”, but “What balls!”
SCHWARZENEGGER: THE 1986 INTERVIEW
RUSS MEYER: THE 1991 INTERVIEW
ROBERT ALTMAN: THE 1987 INTERVIEW
PETER CUSHING: THE 1986 INTERVIEW
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Marcello Mastroianni’s easy charm was an ideal vehicle for portraying decadence. His nonchalant air was redolent with womanizing and sex. However this decadence was aloof. It rarely expressed itself in unabashed glee. A more likely expression was an amused shrug and resigned surrender to the demands of hedonism.